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5 Bird-Watching Festivals You Can Go to This Fall

Catch the great southerly migration with North America's top birding enthusiasts

Not only are these festivals a great way for beginners to get their footing in the world of birding, but they’re an opportunity to take part in the kind of awe-inspiring wildlife migrations usually associated with more far-flung destinations. (Photo: SWInsider/iStock)
Bird Watching Festival

Every fall, more than 300 bird species across North America migrate south for the winter, an event affected as much by a bird’s location and breeding timeline as it is by the changing climate. Not only will these festivals guarantee that you’re in the right place at the right time, but they’ll allow you to take part in the kind of awe-inspiring wildlife migrations usually associated with more far-flung destinations. So book your short-hop flight, grab your binoculars and field guides, and get ready to be captivated alongside North America’s most passionate birding enthusiasts. 

Cape May Fall Festival

Bird Watching Festival
(Photo: Rabbitti/iStock)

Cape May, New Jersey; October 17 to 20

New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Fall Festival is the longest-running birding festival in the country—and for good reason. During the crest of the fall migration, more than 100 bird species can be spotted passing the Cape May peninsula, located at the southern tip of the state between Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, a 50-minute drive from Atlantic City. One of the festival’s highlights is the sky parade of raptors (osprey, sharp-shinned hawks, and kestrels have been prevalent this month) that funnel over Cape May Point; last year more than 50,000 raptors were counted by Cape May Hawkwatch between September 1 and November 30. Enjoy daily field trips on land and sea led by notable birders and photographers, including the popular Trip to the Rips, a three-hour boat tour that offers the chance to view waterbirds like gannets, gulls, and terns at the mouth of Delaware Bay, as well as marine mammals like bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales. Day pass from $85 

Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

Bird Watching Festival
(Photo: duckycards/iStock)

Harlingen, Texas; November 6 to 10

Though the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival always features an impressive roster of daily field trips, professional guides, and keynote speakers, a big draw of the five-day event are the pre- and post-festival trips, which shuttle attendees to in-the-know birding hot spots near and far. This year’s four-day pre-trip, from November 2 to 5, starts in Houston and explores the piney woods and coastal marshes of the state, while the excursion following the festival, from November 11 to 15, ventures over the international border, nearly 300 miles south, to the Unesco-recognized El Cielo Biosphere Reserve in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. After a five-hour bus journey to the mountainous cloudforest in the state’s southeast, you’ll be able to search for endemic species like the Tamaulipas pygmy owl and the Altamira yellowthroat. Registration from $25; trips from $825 

San Quintín Bay Bird Festival

Bird Watching Festival
(Photo: Sean Jansen/iStock)

Campo La Chorera, Baja California, Mexico; November 8 to 9

Established by local communities and the land-conservation nonprofit Terra Peninsula five years ago, the annual San Quintín Bay Bird Festival is a two-day event that aims to promote the protection of over 25,000 birds that visit San Quintín Bay every year. Located on the west coast of Baja California, 190 miles south of Tijuana, the region features wetlands, sand dunes, and meadows important to migratory shorebirds of the Pacific Flyway. While you need to register, the festival features a variety of free or affordable activities, including boat tours, guided birding hikes, and a bird-watching marathon where participants try to identify as many species as possible in a single afternoon. Stay at a beach campsite in Punta Mazo Nature Reserve (from $10). 

Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival

Bird Watching Festival
(Photo: Ferenc Cegledi/iStock)

Fraser Valley, British Columbia; November 16 to 17

Less than two hours southeast of downtown Vancouver is Fraser Valley, home the annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival, a free event that commemorates one of the largest gatherings of bald eagles in the world. Witness thousands of the raptors feed on spawned-out salmon on the banks of the Fraser River, get up close to the birds on boat tours, and check out local vendors, lectures, and family-friendly entertainment at various locations across the valley. While bald eagles (and salmon) may be the main attraction, keep an eye out for large numbers of trumpeter swans and blue herons drawn to the area’s mild climate. 

Festival of the Cranes

Bird Watching Festival
(Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Region/Creative Commons)

San Antonio, New Mexico; November 20 to 23

Birders, photographers, artists, and local Socorro County residents gather every year to witness the return of tens of thousands of sandhill cranes to their wintering grounds in the Middle Rio Grande Valley at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, 95 miles south of Albuquerque. On top of daily hikes, tours, and seminars organized by Friends of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, the festival offers 65 photography workshops geared toward capturing wildlife, which sharpens visitors’ perfect shots of the red-crowned birds. Other highlights include kid-friendly activities, like a hands-on duck-banding project and a biologist-led young birder’s walk. Registration is required for the festival, but like the San Quintín Birding Festival, it includes both free and affordable experiences, as well as more expensive workshops with professionals (from $95). 

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